By: Godknows Boladei Igali, PhD
Mentor and patriarch of Nigeria’s Diplomatic Service and leader of the pioneering squad of the country’s external relations, Ambassador Joe Tonye Fubara Iyalla signed off those familiar initials, “JTF” in the early hours of January 30, 2019. For Principal Envoys sent to represent home countries abroad, it is that privilege of appending one’s initials to the periodic cables and “Dispatches” (reports) to Headquarters, with the flamboyant words, “With Truth and Honour, Your Obedient Servant” that’s the sweetening nuance of this noble and stately profession. Amb Iyalla, signed his final dispatch of life’s full journey at 90 good years of age on that day.
True to his training and vocation, Ambassador Iyalla, more fondly known simply as “Joe Iyalla” or just “JTF” by both young and old in the global diplomatic community, had the distinct privilege and good fortune to stand for Nigeria abroad at the most critical times when it meant a difference. Even beyond that, he had the opportunity, with few peers, to be part of the incipient professional cadre carefully recruited for Nigeria’s foray into the dense and intricate world of diplomacy and interstate relations.
At the twilight of British colonial rule in Nigeria, conscious effort began to be made to recruit an elite corps of officers for the future Nigerian Foreign Service diplomatic corps was, indispensable and had to be put in place for the new Nigerian nation. Those recruited in the pioneering days, initially domiciled in the Office of the Prime Minister, with the granting of internal self government in 1957 were amongst the brightest, well-bred and most promising young men of their day. They were emblematic of a new star, a hope of promising African imprint in world affairs.
Of that early set of officers was, Joe Iyalla, whose birth in 1928 and nestling was in the fishing community of Bakana, on the banks of the New Calabar River in present day Degema Local Government Area of Rivers State. As a matter of fact, Bakana has a special place in the history of the Kalabari (a major subgroup of Ijaw ethnic nationality). Of all the 33 towns and human settlements which make up Kalabari Kingdom, Bakana is revered as one of its first points of dispersal and a pioneer city-state when they moved away from Old Kalabari (Elem Ama) on the fringes of the Atlantic Ocean. Until then, they had actually lived happily at Old Kalabari for many centuries after they branched off from the ‘Mein’ cluster of clans in the Central Delta in Bayelsa to the Eastern swamps in Rivers State. Interestingly enough, it was, Chief Pina Pina Inai, the warrior epic ancestor of Joe Iyalla along with his friend Igbanibo, in 1802 led the exit from the old settlement. After then, Bakana increased in importance as it was the nearest of Kalabari towns to new colonial capital of Port-Harcourt as well as other big Ijaw kngdoms of Bonny, Opobo and Okrika. Being one of the first Nigerian groups to have contact with Europe, the Kalabaris revile a list of firsts, including Dr. GKJ Amachree, first Solicitor General of Nigeria and first African Under Secretary General of the United Nations as well as Dr. Nabo Graham-Douglas, first Senior Advocate of Nigeria- SAN, (along with Chief Rotimi Williams).
When the University of London opened its Ibadan College to the pioneer 104 students on January 18, 1948, the then 19 year old Joe Iyalla was amongst those admitted to the famous Faculty of Arts. The Faculty of Arts in Ibadan in those starting years has produced such literary titans as Professors Chinua Achebe, Wole Soyinka, JP Clark, Cyprian Nkwensi, Elechi Amadi, e.t.c. By 1951, when that first set was leaving Ibadan, Iyalla, bagged a brilliant Honours Degree in Classics Degree – a discipline considered to be the foundation of elite education. Indeed Classics as a discipline, till date is only taught in Ibadan and in all of Nigeria’s 170 universities and has produced other top administrators like T.A. Akinyele; diplomats such as Ambassadors Emeka Anyaoku, BA Clark, Olujimi Jolaosho and leaders of Commerce and Industry like G.T. Adokpaye and Gamaliel Onosode as well as lawyers such as Bola Ige. Also from classics is acclaimed writers in the genre of Christopher Okigbo; and contemporary politicians such as Godwin Obaseki, Governor of Edo State.
Unlike most of his colleagues who were brought into the diplomatic service, shortly after graduation, Iyalla, came in with robust experience. So upon graduation in 1951, Iyalla was recruited as an Administrative Officer in the Office of Chief Secretary for Nigeria (equivalent of today’s Secretary to Government of the Federation). He was then given the very best of international exposure by being posted and domiciled, most of the time, in London till 1968. He was technically one of the first Nigerians to enjoy such external posting. Thereafter he was moved to the Public Service Commission of the Federation where he rose to become the Secretary. In that capacity, his role in laying the foundation for the future Civil Service of an independent Nigeria was far-reaching.
With such rich experience in governance and administration, developed under British, he was appointed Deputy Permanent Secretary of the tutelage created Ministry of External Affairs in October 1960 on the attainment of Nigerian independence. Being a core Administrator with external service experience, he helped his two principals, who were posted to the new ministry in succession as Permanent Secretary to set up the Nigerian Foreign Service. As the top bureaucrat, he formatted what is still today, largely, the structure of that service.
If the epithet that a “golden fish has no hiding place” makes meaning, it was acted out in Iyalla’s life as in 1964, he was moved to the Organization for African Unity (OAU) as Assistant Secretary General.
By 1966, he was appointed as Ambassador and Deputy Permanent Representative of Nigeria to the United Nations (next to Chief Simeon Adebo). However, when war began to rage in Nigeria and the country needed the best presence in the world’s superpower, Amb. Iyalla was moved to Washington as Nigeria’s Ambassador to the United States of America in 1968 and stayed there till 1972.
From these high-level bilateral and multilateral vantage posts, he played the main role in garnering global support for Nigeria’s war effort during the sad 1967-1970 years. In the US in particular, he was able to tactfully, sway rising government and public sympathy and support from the threat to divide Nigeria. This contributed to America’s eventual indifferent stance, despite the very sturdy and well-oiled secessionist lobby from diverse sources. Rather, Iyalla’s work in Washington focused on the conduct of negotiations with the Biafran support groups and cells towards armistice, peace, reconciliation and eventually reconstruction (by the time of his next assignment).
No good Head of State could keep such an exceptional star far away from home. Not surprisingly therefore, he was appointed Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of External Affairs from 1972-1975 by General Yakubu Gowon with whom he shared mutual respect, although the latter was his boss. Gen Gowon ensured that Iyalla stayed in place as a key member of his government’s think-tank.
The obvious truth is that, during the previous years of very engaging assignments, perhaps more than any of his generation, JTF had matured exponentially and even became a mentor to many of his erstwhile colleagues. He became a legend or what his long time associate and confidant, Ambassador BA Clark termed “an institution”. Another “younger” colleague, Amb Sagay noted in a published tribute that referred to him as “the premus inter pares on the patheon of the great”.
Although we do not need to go in search of impressions about Joe Iyalla’s national service, a few may suffice. This is especially in view of recently declassified American State Department papers about his personae. For example, it revealed that it was during the days of Joe Iyalla’s career height that the then Head of State, Gen. Yakubu Gowon, on good advice had the temerity to turn down the invitation from President Richard Nixon to visit United States in 1971. This tactical decline was what hawkish and ultra nationalist diplomats like Amb. Iyalla considered tacit bluff for “The US snobbish and cunningly posturing during the Nigerian civil war”. Indeed, Amb Iyalla, even more than Gen. Gowon and Minister (Commissioner) for External affairs (Dr. Okoi Arikpo) stood tall, time after time to the big powers.
A writer once referred to Amb. Iyalla’s days thus, “The 1970’s is believed to be the golden era of Nigeria’s foreign diplomacy. The country had competent and confident diplomats almost always able to stand up to America and European officials to push Nigeria’s interest. On one occasion that speaks volumes of that era, a blunt Nigeria official (Joe Iyalla) told a United States Ambassador (John Reinhardt) that Nigeria was not one of “Americas Banana republics”, starring in Washington”.
Hence the US Embassy in Nigeria at the time continuously reported to Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger, referring to Iyalla as “a pricky customer” and the fact that “we continue to encounter a number of pretty annoyances on administrative matters as visas and ….. elements of Nigeria’s officialdum now seem intent on raising obstacles to our longer raised commercial and investment goals as well. If nothing else, the abrasive tone that is creeping into the handling of our request”
The rather daring Wikileaks exposure also shows, that just after the overthrow of Gen. Gowon on July 29, 1975, American intelligence reports breathed a sigh of relief, gladdingly about rumours of his planned exit, but praising him as “professionally competence but difficult to deal with”. That is from their point of view and for being unrepentantly and perhaps arrogantly too Nigerian.
Joe Iyalla’s influence and respect went beyond the Foreign Service to all of the country’s Civil Service. Along with Allison Ayida, Philip Asiodu, Ahmed Jodda, Ibrahim Damcida and few other colleagues, he became known as ‘Super Perm Sec’. Like all of this lot, his premature exit from service at the hands of the 1975 coup plotters at the age of 47, only opened up new vistas to creative engagement and dominance in commerce, industry and finance. Joe Iyalla soon became the board room guru of some of the most productive business outfits in Nigeria till his death. For example, along with his erstwhile colleague and friend Philip Asiodu, he helped form and was for four years, Chairman of the Board of the Nigerian-German Business Council.
There seem not to have been any dull moments as he also lent his experience in latter years to the Board service on several public sector institutions. These included Chairman of Governinig Board of Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research (NISER) and Board Membership of National Institute for Policy and Strategic Studies (NIPSS) and National Science and Technology Fund; all between 1981-1987.
He was debonair, urbane, cosmopolitan, tweery and full of tact and incisive perspectives. He was very serious minded and never suffered fowls gladly, he was greatly patriotic, zealous and untiringly laborious. The accounts have it, that under him, the Permanent Secretary’s office had morning and night shifts all headed by him. An avid Pan-Nigerian who was blind to our debilitating national constrictions of ethnicism, sectionalism and parochialism, now swooping ablaze.
He was passionately loved, genuinely respected but also typically envied and habitual victim of the conspirators coven….”
Amb Joe Iyalla, was a titan of sort, amongst very great Nigerian diplomats of his generation. They were all thoroughly well-bred, polished, multilingual and masters of the art of civil stratagem. They soon established the Nigerian imprimatur as the voice of the Black and African people. Before long, some themes such as Decolonization, Anti-Apartheid, African Renaissance, Concentric Circles, Economic Development and the like became the mantra of Nigeria’s Foreign Policy. When the men led by General Murtala Mohammed in 1975 overthrew Gen Gowon’s administration in which many of them served, they could not depart from the broad diplomatic policy which had been carved for Nigeria.
Unlike the dim past, the world has, increasingly become a greatly interconnected village. Interdependence, shared humanity of close social interactions, a common environment and straddling economic fortunes are the definitive features. Therefore, Nation upon nation, continues to incubate the best brains and perceptive minds which go out to protect and defend their interests in strange lands. In this respect, every nation has in its Hall of Fame the listing of heroes and most venerated patriots. Despite the contradictory vicissitudes which life turns out to be, such men and women, dust the soles off their feet and never cower. They may not be Niccolo Machiavelli, Dag Hammajord, Charles Maurice, Henry Kissinger or even Kofi Anan, Madeleine Albright, but Nigeria obviously has many of such and their memories will continue to resonate in our historical renditions.
No doubt, Amb. Iyalla is one of the greatest Nigerians ever and has, quite rightly so, secured for himself an imprint in service to our country and humankind casted on finest gold. The author of the near magical transformation of Dubai, Mohammed bin Rashid, once said “We may not live for hundreds of year, but the products of our creativity can leave a legacy long after we are gone”. So even, now that he has signed off his final dispatch and moved on to eternity, his memory remains indelible. But he will be greatly missed by his children and adoring wife Omo Oba (Mrs) Mabel Olufunke Iyalla.
Amb. Igali is a Diplomat and Author of the award winning book “Perspectives on Nation State Formation in Contemporary Africa”